Laughing at Democracy at the Mall

Marty Kaplan is one smart guy. He is now the director of the Norman Lear Center for the study of entertainment and society at the Annenberg School of the University of Southern California. The rest of his resume is embarrassing to the rest of us: He graduated summa cum laude in molecular biology from Harvard, received a first in English at Cambridge, earned a Ph.D. in modern thought from Stanford and, as a vice president of Disney, wrote a movie for Eddie Murphy.

He has this theory about entertainment taking over the news, even the world. At the blackboard, he shows traditional media as a series of circles marked “Politics and Government,” “Business,” “Society,” “Sports,” “Entertainment,” etc. That’s what newspapers looked like, say, 20 years ago. Then he shows the “Entertainment” circle ballooning to cover part of, even most of, the other circles.

That’s where we are now. If any proof of the thesis by Kaplan (pictured right) were needed it came last Tuesday when the Los Angeles Times, in its main news section, offered this three-column headline: “Warrant Issued for Lohan.” With a two-column photo of a bad-girl actress, the paper reported that she had failed another drug test.

And that, of course, came three days after the comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert announced that they wanted hundreds of thousands of people to come to Washington on Oct. 30 to listen (and laugh) as they make fun of politics and politicians at the feet of Abraham Lincoln’s Memorial.

Well, that’s just great, but I am not sure all of this is good for children or democracy. Lincoln, though, might actually enjoy it. He was, after all, a great story- and joke-teller. And he knew a good deal about the connections between politics and entertainment. As someone said, maybe it was Lincoln himself, politics is show business for ugly people. Beyond that, torchlight parades, July Fourth picnics and Will Rogers were always politics disguised as entertainment. Or should it be entertainment disguised as politics?

In fact, one of the nation’s greatest series of political events, the debates between Senate candidates Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858, were actually a great entertainment of their time. Wagonloads of families from all over Illinois would travel, sometimes for days, to become part of the crowd at what were really two- or three-day carnivals of music, food and oratorical entertainment. Those 19th-century tailgaters roared with laughter when Lincoln, who knew his opponent had a fondness for hearty drink, said: “Douglas has said his father was a cooper. I am certain he was a good one, for he has made one of the best whiskey casks I have ever seen!”

However that line works 150 years later, there is a another difference now: Instead of Lincoln and Douglas as stars, we now get just stars. Stewart, Colbert, Glenn Beck. They are interesting men, but in claiming political leadership — and that is what they are doing — they are degrading American politics even more than it degrades itself.

In fact, a wise man once said: “Maybe the nice thing about being a comedian is never having a full belief in yourself to know the answer … (Comedians) don’t lead a lot of marches.”

Whoops! That was Jon Stewart during an interview a few weeks ago in New York Magazine.

These guys are greedy for material, which is right and natural. Is it possible our politicians (and voters) aren’t already providing all they need? Isn’t Christine O’Donnell in Delaware with her anti-masturbation campaign beyond parody? And what about that guy who no one seems to know but is the Democratic nominee for Senate in South Carolina? Could anything be funnier? She will end up on “Dancing With the Stars,” which actually is what she seems to be about, and he could end up in jail.

Maybe politicians (and political journalists, too) are only going to get what they deserve on Oct. 30. I’m against it, but I’ll be watching. After all, Stewart and Colbert are really funny. I just worry that they and we are going too far. I don’t believe in philosopher-kings or philosopher-comedians, either.

The original op-ed can be read at Yahoo! News.